So I wanted to write a post about something I came across yesterday when out hunting, but before you read further, you should be aware that this post contains photographs of a shot deer, various images of the carcass, and of the postmortem dissection of the jaw.
This is purely for educational purposes to demonstrate a condition that can affect older deer, and out of no compulsion for a “trophy” photograph.
I believe it is important that those managing deer professionally, or those hunting to put meat on the table, are made aware of various more unusual aspects of deer biology, both for interests sake; and for the safety, well-being, and ethics of all concerned.
The animal in question, due to emaciation, will be left on the hill in order to sustain wildlife in this bad weather over the next few weeks. This is not common practice, but due to the high standards of the venison and game industry, there is a high chance this animal would be condemned by the vet at the game dealer. As it is, she will no doubt benefit a nearby badger set, other mustelids, the odd fox, rodents, birds of prey, nearby birch trees, aspens, and wood anemone. I’ll set a trail cam up nearby to watch the process.
OK, on with the story.
I shot this hind yesterday, on the edge of some birch woodland. Personally, I believe if she hadn’t had access to shelter from the weather, she would not have lasted this long. You can see from the photo below, a couple of points of concern, from a deer managers perspective:
– the distinct lump under her jaw
– the muscle loss, prominent spine and hip bones
– a rough, ‘starey’ coat (never a sign of good health in any animal)
I will say, first and foremost, that I believe this deer was in generally good health, and was acting normally. If I had had any concerns at all, after dispatch I would have carried out a basic health check, and if I had found indicators of any notifiable disease, would have contacted the relevant authorities immediately. As it stands, her condition is down to age, which I will detail later on.
So, the first item of concern to investigate:
The lump under the chin
I had never seen this before, and was concerned it could have been a growth, or perhaps an abscess. My colleague, however, had seen something similar, and said we could cut the jaw open to find out more.
The lump was composed of compacted grass (which absolutely reeked). Clearly there was some infection on the go, not surprising given the amount of foreign matter that had built up there. This was evidenced too by the enlarged sub-maxilliary lymph nodes (see the photo below).
The compaction occurs when skin under the hinds tongue splits, perhaps cut by a piece of rough heather, or after an abscess of some kind. Once the split is present, every time the hind lies up to chew the cud, more and more food get stuck in the cut. Over time, the cud compacts, and the void under the tongue fills with fermenting foliage. Distinctly unpleasant for the poor lass.
Apparently, this most commonly is seen in older deer, which makes sense I suppose; as their teeth wear, they’ll be less efficient at breaking down fibrous plants and more likely to sustain an injury (but I’m happy to be corrected!).
Which brings me onto my next point:
This was an old hind. We usually age deer by their teeth, this is the most effective means, and there are various papers written on the subject. A deer’s age, like that of most ungulates, is determined by their teeth – once they wear out, the animal can no longer eat, and consequently starves to death. Another reason to brush up on identifying and ageing deer for management culling, removing these deer from the population prevents the slow suffering of weeks of starvation.
As you can see from the image below, the lower molars are worn nearly to the gum.
(I realise without a comparison image to a young deer, this image may not mean a lot! I will endeavour to write a post on the subject in due course. Honest.).
Which rounds us up to my final point of interest:
This is just a quick overview on body condition. Again, I will try and write further about it in future.
Below, we have the hind – the factors I pointed out earlier (muscle loss, prominent bones) can be seen clearly here. The wastage at the back end is particularly obvious, the sharp > shape of the rump is a clear indicator of lost condition.
Her coat too is rough, ‘starey’ and yellow. A lack of condition and bodily resources means she is slower to grow in her winter coat.
The next photograph shows inside the body cavity, after the deer has been gralloched (esophagus, stomach, spleen, intestines removed). This is perhaps a more meaningful image for those already acquainted with deer, but you can see the lack of any body fat within the cavity or around the kidneys.
We had over 70 consecutive days of rain in the Highlands recently, which has definitely taken its toll, on the hinds in particular, who have struggled to keep condition on, whilst trying to stay warm for the period of time.
This female had a calf at foot (also culled to avoid orphaning), which demonstrates an incredible strain on her biological resources, as you can see. Given that there is very little calorific value in the vegetation at this time of year, she would have been depleting her reserves just going day-to-day. In a hind in better condition, or younger in age, we would expect to see a good covering of fat over the psoas major (tenderloin), and a white jacket of fat around the kidneys, completely obscuring them.
The final image, is merely to demonstrate further, the lack of weight around her hips and back – the spine was very prominent, and I could nearly wrap my hand around it, despite all the fur.
I hope you have found this post useful and interesting! I will try and get my act together and write more – it’s nigh on impossible once hunting season starts though to find the time! (And I know what I’d rather be doing…and that isn’t sitting in front of a screen!)
The competition aims to raise awareness of game meat as a healthy and sustainable option for the dinner table. It is also giving an opportunity to those within the hospitality industry to see where their products come from, the husbandry and handling that goes into each piece of meat; and for the gamekeepers and land managers to see what happens to their products once they’ve been processed and reached the kitchen.
My primary role in the competition was to source the game needed for our recipe. After some initial collaboration, my chef team mate and I decided to go for a combination of rabbit and pheasant.
Cheap, easily accessible and quick to prepare; both of these species are available all year round. Typically culled as “pests” from farms and golf courses, rather than reared for meat production, this ticked a lot of boxes for us. (A big thank you at this point to Ardgay Game for the pigeons, due to short notice of the competition it would have been nearly impossible to source them otherwise!)
After batting a few ideas between us, we settled on a rabbit loin, with a pigeon and wild mushroom mouse ballotine, accompanied by winter veg. I’d seen other people cook these on TV, but it was interesting to have a go myself!
As it was, we won the regional competition with our dish, and went on to compete with the students from Elmwood and Borders, with the competition hosted at Borders College Campus in Galashiels.
It was a really enjoyable experience, even though we didn’t win (congrats to the Borders College guys, and commiserations to Elmwood, who made a really cracking arancini). I’d like to think we did our bit to represent North Highland, in any case…
Firstly, a big thanks to you both, it was a very interesting and informative day, providing a lot of food for thought. Also thanks to The Pier for the superb lunch; if you’re in Lairg, do stop there for a meal.
Now, onto the day itself.
The event saw representatives of various groups and organisations (SNH, RSPB Scotland, UHI ERI), along with estate managers, deer stalkers, and crofters, gather at the Forestry Commission depot at Lairg. Once there we had a short briefing from the Flows to the Future team, on peatland restoration techniques and methods; why they are happening, and what benefits the peatlands can bring, once restored. Forestry Commission Scotland, then stepped up and their staff gave a short presentation on the current works being carried out at Dalchork forest, and the various levels of policy that affect the work carried out. With context in our minds, we piled into a minibus for a tour around the Dalchork site.
The first example of a restoration technique we saw was bunding. A bund is a wall of peat, placed in a trench in the ground, to slow or stop water flow from the site, thus leading to a rise in the water table. Bunds generally measure one or two metres wide, by a metre deep, and can vary in length. In terms of slowing or stopping water flow, on this site, they seemed effective, judging by the standing pools and sphagnum areas that were developing.
My only concern was the bare peat left on the surface, though will eventually naturally recover, it could also be artificially re-vegetated.
Additionally, the consensus was that the leftover “waste” from harvesting, being left on the surface, would act as a deterrent for moorland bird species, who prefer open vistas to avoid depredation.
A similar method to bunding, is that of building peat dams. Peat dams are used to block drains and drainage ditches. Whereas bunding requires a trench to be dug, dams are placed directly into a drain at various intervals along its course. Their main purpose is to slow water flow, and hold areas of water and re-wet the surrounding ground.
As can be seen below, they can require maintenance if the water forces its way over, around, or through the dam. We saw another example of a dam on our tour, which was more effective, as a channel had been included to draw standing water away from the main drain onto the surrounding ground. We use this technique on the estate where I work – it seems to be far more effective than simply blocking drains at intervals.
Below is a demonstration of one mulching method. The brash and spare timber from the site has been used to form a dense brash mat right across the site. The theory being the benefits are two-fold: the mats run perpendicular to the drains and furrows on the site, thus holding water in those areas and keeping the water table high (as can be seen). Secondly, it provides access across the site for deer managers, who will be managing the deer population across the area, minimising grazing pressure on recovering areas.
Personally, I’m more of a fan of whole site mulching, which I will detail below. My concerns here being the deep pools, furrows and ditches, along with remaining brash and stumps, which will still provide a pain in the neck (to put it mildly) for anyone extracting carcasses from the area.
Below we can see what appears to be a snapshot of the Somme. It is in fact a freshly restored site, with work being completed only a fortnight ago.
Here, several techniques were used – mulching, stump flipping, and compressing – these are all fairly self-explanatory, I think! It will be interesting to see the site in a years time, and then as time goes by, to see how quickly it re-vegetates.
Vegetation growth could be sped up by applying heather brash, which would protect the area from erosion, and contains seeds, and has been used with success in various areas.
Next up is one of my favourite methods – mulching. It is reasonably costly, but in terms of results and ground cover, it is highly effective. This site as you can see has been newly mulched, however in my post Stalking the Scottish Savanna, you can see a sight which was mulched several years ago on the estate I work on. It may be a nightmare to stalk deer across, but we are already seeing heather and sphagnum regrowth, and a rapid rate of decomposition of timber – much faster than the comparison area which was traditionally harvested.
The mulched material can also be used to fill in drains and furrows, slowing or stopping run off, and keeping the groundwater levels stable.
The following three photographs are of ditch blocking techniques – but using plastic sheeting, or marine ply-board. The theory behind these methods is to impede or slow the flow of water from forestry drains, thus allowing the surrounding areas to absorb the water.
I have to admit, I am not a big fan of this method for a few reasons:
This was a thought provoking day. It is always useful to see restoration work carried out by other organisations, and to chat with other land managers (irrespective of industry) to hear their thoughts on the peatlands and ongoing work. Management of such a fragile ecosystem requires thought and consideration – I’m stating the obvious, I know the same could be said for every landscape across the globe! – But it reassuring to see projects and talk to individuals who are so passionate about the landscape.
Speaking to the FCS team, there will be some establishment of woodlands in the recovery areas…but this time growing trees that would naturally occur, and only in those regions where the trees want to grow!
The right tree, in the right place. Sounds alright to me.
It’s been another interesting and busy couple of weeks. First up…
The 30th and 31st of March saw the sixth annual Integrated Land Use Conference take place at Carrbridge. This years theme was ‘Balancing the Benefits of Woodland Expansion’. An interesting couple of days, though I felt there was a very heavy forestry focus – I know this seems obvious given the theme, but I was quite glad for the input of Dr. Roxane Andersen (Environmental Research Institute, UHI), Dr. Dick Birnie (The Heather Trust), and Keiran Buckley (Irish Grey Partridge Conservation Trust), to add some element of balance.
I as also a little concerned that deer and wildlife management were barely on the radar during the two days, despite being a vital consideration in woodland expansion and management. Perhaps this will be discussed at next years conference…?
The Deer Bit
April 1st saw the start of the roebuck season, so I’ve been having a wee wander around the estate to see how the boys are looking. All our bucks are still in velvet at the moment, though I’m seeing and hearing that bucks in the south are already clean. Meanwhile the stags are back to hanging around in their bachelor groups again, and we’re beginning to see them start to cast their antlers.
I spent a hour or more watching this pair. They really are the loveliest little deer.
Seen some interesting bits and bobs on my wanders; a little bit of warm weather and everything is really starting to get moving. Spiders, lizards, and toads are cropping up everywhere…prompting some imaginative driving on country roads at night, dodging toads. I’m seeing lots of frogspawn out and about, though we’re a little behind other folks further south who already have tadpoles!
It won’t be long before the ticks come out in force – I don’t think anyone’s looking forward to that. On the plus side, it’s always interesting to see the different lichens and that appear too – such as the Dog Lichen (Peltigera spp.) pictured above, and I’m looking forward to a bit of warmer weather to get back out swimming again.
The Scottish Highlands have their own unique cold.
I’m insistent of this fact, despite my colleague’s protestation that “Cold is cold.”
Having just had the chance to sit in the Alps at -16, and the Highlands at 1 degrees Celsius, I can confirm the Scottish chill definitely gets in the bones quicker!
I ponder my career choice every time I come to wash my hands in a freezing burn or pool after I gralloch a deer. This feeling can’t be more prevalent than when I have to break through a sheet of ice to reach clean water…
With a wintry sun rising in the east behind us, we spied a group of hinds and calves grazing and moving steadily through an area of felled forestry. They would be a perfect group to target, fulfilling several cull criteria; the most important being the suppression of grazing in this particular area of clear fell, thus minimising the pressure on natural heather and tree regeneration.
Driving to the south of the forest, we parked up, shouldered our rifles and set off.
Moving slowly, scanning ahead to check for any other groups of deer, we skirted in a wide arc around the hinds. This initial area has some handy wee knolls and hollows in which to move around, out of sight of the quarry. After a look around we were able to cut across onto an access track and move forward totally out of sight and, just as importantly, down wind of the deer.
When hunting a landscape like this, a single step can reveal an entirely un-spied piece of ground. Glancing down to our left, R stopped walking and slowly drew back from the edge of the track. Lifting my binoculars I searched through the long grass; a group of hinds, some 200 metres away were looking in our direction. They hadn’t quite seen us, but must have seen some movement, and were gazing inquisitively up the slope. Ensuring we were out of sight, we sat on the road. If these deer would settle, we could shoot some from this group instead.
Unfortunately, it was not to be. Fifteen minutes went by and, as quietly as they appeared, the hinds sidled further down the slope and disappeared into the remaining forest. We would catch up with them another day. Slowly standing and glancing around; R pointed to the north, a pair of ears, just above the horizon. Our first group of hinds. Dropping down below the track, we continued to circle round below them.
A set of antlers appeared on the skyline. We paused. A lone, elderly stag was grazing ahead, not 70 yards away, just over the crest of a hill. It’s unusual to see a red deer, stag or hind, on their own. This fellow seemed well enough however, and we chalked it up to age. R made some clicking noises to attract his attention.The stag looked at us, trying to decide how much of a threat we were. In an ideal world, he would have been slightly perturbed, and would have ambled gently off to the side, allowing us to creep forward towards the hinds. However, as we all know, it’s not an ideal world, and the stag decided panicking and taking off like a scalded cat was a far better option.
Deer are finely tuned into their surroundings, and it’s not uncommon to see hinds paying attention to the movements of other deer half a kilometre away. Given how flat the landscape is, it would be too much to hope that the running stag hadn’t been noticed by our hinds.
Creeping slowly forward up a slight rise until we could just see the ears of the hinds, which were all turned towards the stag, before the deer began to slowly drift in the opposite direction. We waited a short while before following. Edging onward, bent down to try and avoid skylining, we reached a furrow, left behind by the felling process, and sat, keeping the backs of the hinds just in sight as they moved further away.
They say ‘patience is a virtue’.
Deer stalking requires a lot of it.
Sitting on frozen moss, in a biting easterly wind, with increasingly numb fingers and toes, waiting for hinds to settle down, is a great test of it.
We now had two options.
Wait and see if the hinds dropped down into a burn, out of the wind;
Begin crawling to try and get in place to take a shot.
After sitting and waiting for a good half hour or more, the thought of moving again and warming up overcame the thought of what we would be crawling over. The hinds were 400 yards away. We would have to crawl over 200 yards to get within range of them.
Crawling over frozen, wet, mossy, peaty, blanket bog; hands slipping into freezing pools; the ground topped with chopped sharp branches, frozen solid into the earth, guaranteeing maximum pain to your knees every time you move is, what can best be described as, an “experience”.
The “experience” did not get more comfortable, with the already uneasy hinds moving forward as we did, grazing away from us. The 200 yard crawl became 250 yards, then 300…
Finally, we got to somewhere we could shoot from. As I had been away, R told me I was up to shoot first. Pulling the rifle from the slip and setting it up, I looked through the scope. It took me a moment to get my eye in and pick a hind from the herd. Breathing out and holding my breath, I squeezed the trigger, and watched her drop on the spot. I reloaded and scanned around, looking for another shot, but the hinds were moving off and it seemed that that was it for the day.
“Keep your knife out, you’ll find a pool just along here… Look, this one’s even frozen for you!” R cheerfully remarked as we dragged the hind out of the clear fell.
I gave an appropriate reply as I kicked a hole in the ice.
Really though, I thought to myself, as I scrubbed the blood from my hands; to work in such an interesting and challenging environment; to have a hand in the long term management of an entire landscape; and to get an insight, afforded to few, into the lives of such clever and beautiful animals as our red deer…frozen fingers aren’t a bad price to pay.
“Come and stay with us for a couple of days if you want?” the message from my friend read.
Now, I don’t know about you, but when an invite to stay in the Austrian Alps comes up, you change your plans quickly in order to go!
The idea to go to Hungary cropped up fairly early in 2016, I had originally been going to remain there for a full week; spending some time in Budapest and visiting friends. I was also planning on hunting wild boar while I was there. (I’ve written about my time in Budapest separately here).
However, during stag season we had had a few groups of Austrian guests hunting with us on the estate. Once I saw their photos of the mountains in Austria, I knew I had to go. The plan changed. Fewer days in Budapest. A train ride to Vienna, and then on to Innsbruck, and home after that? Perfect.
I had kept in touch with a couple of Austrian hunters and sent them a message asking if they could recommend anything to do or see while I was in their country. A day later I received a message back suggesting I head across to the Vorarlberg region and spend a few days with them. Quick check of trains, cancelling accommodation in Vienna, and I was ready to go. I’m sure Vienna is stunning, and I’d love to visit properly one day. However, I’ve never been a city girl and the mountains were calling.
I caught the train from Budapest on Friday, arriving in Vienna and catching my next train west at what seemed to be rush hour. Finally getting off the train after over 11 hours constant travelling was a relief, I was met at the station with the offer of a beer, which I gratefully accepted!
Day one, I was given a quick tour of the valley, before heading over to my friend’s hunting area. We spent the morning topping up deer feeding areas (for both roe and red, very different to how we manage deer in Scotland, on our estate we don’t feed deer at all), and roaring about on the skidoo…cue obligatory snow mobile photo. After thorough trialing, I can say with certainty, that they’re great fun, and I want one for Christmas.
Lunch consisted of a cheesy spätzle dish. Spätzle is a type of egg noodle dumpling (used in cooking in Germany, Austria, Switzerland and Hungary) which, when combined with heaps of cheese and caramelized onions, is basically heaven on a plate.
After lunch we headed to the ski slopes and spent a few hours there, finishing the afternoon with apfelstrudel and schnapps. Over dinner that evening, my friend’s wife told me another hunter had phoned and we had been asked to help with some hunting the next day, in a region about an hour or so away.
Day two, with an initial search to find me some boots and gloves (I hadn’t packed for a hunting trip) we set off. After an hour and a half leisurely drive through the mountains, we began to wend our way up a snow covered single track (the exciting kind, with steep drops and no guard rails), past iconic alpine timber houses, until we reached another friend’s house. A dram before lunch – more cheesy spätzle – and we headed out to meet with the other hunters.
Shoot days have a similar feel regardless of country, I might not speak German, but could tell the banter was exactly the same! We had been tasked with helping clear a wood of three deer. This particular area of forest served an important role, preventing avalanches, and as such deer presence was kept at zero to prevent tree damage. My friend and I were allocated a high seat, and we headed there while the other hunters and beaters got into position around the wood.
We did spot some of beaters moving through the wood, but the deer never came our way in the end and, after hearing rifle shots over the hill, we got a call to say the hunt was over. We made our way down the hill and drove back to the hamlet, meeting up with everyone at the pub. The customary handshaking and congratulatory “waidmannsheil” to the successful hunter was followed by a warming bowl of goulash soup, fresh bread rolls, coffee and wine, which were very welcome after sitting still for a few hours in -15C.
Monday rolled round, all good things must come to an end, and I had to catch my train back east to Innsbruck.
(Which is in itself an lovely town, I can recommend Strudelcafe Kröll if you have time to spare for strudel…and, let’s face it, there is always time for strudel).
My first jaunt of 2017 was south and east, to Hungary, and afterwards, north west to Austria.
Travel plans first formed when I worked with a great group of Hungarians early in 2016. Every year the hotel they work at closes and they can head back home for a couple of months. Last year, we hatched a plan to meet up in Budapest in January 2017.
It was my first time in Hungary and visiting Budapest, so on my first day my pal Toni took me on a walking tour of the city. We saw the sights; St Stephens Basilica (Szent Istvan Bazilika), visited Parliament, walked across the Chain Bridge (Széchenyi lánchíd), went to the Fishermans Bastion, walked up Castle Hill, saw Matthias Church, and passed through Vörösmarty Square (Vörösmarty tér) multiple times. We also saw the Little Princess statue (Kiskirálylány) – which is a great wee sculpture and one of many figures to be found in and around the city.
After a morning wandering, I was beginning to get an inkling of the history of the city, the country, and its people. We stopped for lunch at Hungarikum Bisztro. I opted for stuffed sour cabbage in cream; it might not sound hugely appetizing, but it tasted delicious, and honestly I would stop in Budapest again, just to try more food off the menu.
Next day, Wednesday, was another day of touring about. Meeting up with a second friend, the three of us walked to Heroes Square (Hősök tere), passing through the Jewish Quarter and seeing the Dohány Street Synagogue (the largest synagogue in Europe); it’s a beautiful building. Once we reached Heroes Square, my friends pointed out various figures from their country’s past, it was truly fascinating. The statues of the Seven Chieftains of the Magyars have to be my favourite, I think. It’s a stunning space, and well worth a visit.
We continued the whistle-stop tour with a wander to Vajdahunyad Castle and paid a breif visit to the statue of Anonymus, who is thought to have written the Gesta Hungarorum (Deeds of the Hungarians). It is estimated to have been written circa 1200, and it is the first existing chronicle of the Hungarians. In short, he’s a pretty important figure.
In the afternoon, Toni and I went to the Budapest Hall of Art (the Műcsarnok Kunsthalle) for a couple of hours. It was pleasant, after a hectic couple of days, to just relax and look at the artwork. We managed to catch The First Golden Age exhibition. I actually found it quite moving – as art should be, I suppose. After hearing so much about the history of the country, seeing some of the pieces in the exhibition was surprisingly touching. In particular, the painting ‘Wake‘ by Hungarian artist Laszlo Pataky was, when seen in person, heart breaking. As was ‘Queen Isabelle Saying Goodbye to Transylvania‘ by Alexander von Wagner. A great exhibition, on until the 12th of March, well worth a look if you’re in the city.
Due to birthday celebrations the night before, my final day in Budapest was slow to start. Food being the first mission, we found a great cafe/restaurant, Vigodo Sorozo Etterem. Again, I would definitely come back for the food. In the afternoon, I went to check out the climbing gym, Spider Club, where I spent a pleasant couple of hours climbing off all the food I’d eaten in the last few days. After that, it was time to head back to the flat, and grab an early night before catching the train north to Austria.
Whilst I’m not a city mouse, I did enjoy my time in Budapest. It’s a stunning city, steeped in history, and abundant with good food. I look forward to heading back.
I’ve said before now that I am interested in conservation in all its forms. This is one of them.
A real passion of mine throughout my life has been taxidermy. I remember, as a kid, wandering round museums looking at the mounted up animals and imagining them coming to life. It’s a passion that I’ve carried through the years, and over the last few I’ve got involved in it myself. I began by collecting bones and feathers and odds and ends I found on walks and now have a freezer of road-kill waiting to be skinned and mounted up – as time and workspace allow!
Over the last couple of years I’ve picked up pieces of old taxidermy – mainly through feeling sorry for the poor things! – this prompted me to begin restoring old mounts and to try and return them to some of their former glory…or in fact with one or two pieces to give them some of the pride they were deprived of in the first place!
I’ve worked on a few pieces now for other people – a juvenile crocodile, a fox, an otter, an osprey…but the piece I’m most proud of is the one I’ve just finished – an eagle for the local secondary school. Here’s what it looked like before:
Now this poor thing had suffered pretty much every form of abuse possible…
I apologise for the shoddy quality of the “Before” photographs, they were snapped quickly on my phone. Anyway, what entailed was a thorough cleaning, de-mothing, dusting, stripping the base, rebuilding pretty much everything, re-colouring the feathers, and applying fresh paint to the feet and beak. Needless to say it took a long time.
However, after all the work I am pleased to present an eagle with a bit more dignity:
So there you have it! One eagle.
I wrote this piece on High Nature Value farming in August 2013. It was originally written to go in The Northern Times but never went to print. I did it for the RSPB hence the emphasis on them. You can find further information on the High Nature Value Farming website. Personally, I feel that the HNV principle is sound, regardless of who endorses it, so I’ll post my article here.
Note: The HNV site contains a case study of Balnakeil farm. Both the site and this article share quotes from Andrew Elliot, the farm owner. The websites’ author is aware of this.
In this day and age, with environmental concerns around every corner, it is becoming more and more important for everybody – organisations, crofters and farmers, the public, and communities, to work together, to look after the world and wildlife around us.
Having spent the last 19 years living and working on a croft in the farming community of the Orkney Islands, I was intrigued by the concept of High Nature Value (HNV) farming, which the RSPB promote and support. I have since been investigating High Nature Value farming and how it is working in the county of Sutherland.
The basic premise of HNV is to operate a lower-intensity method of farming which is beneficial to wildlife, but without causing undue hassle or costs for the farmer or crofter and allowing them to maintain productive land. Something more akin to traditional farming methods of years gone past, and moving away from the intensive high input farming strategies of the 1970’s and 80’s. On a recent trip to Durness, I was able to see the difference that High Nature Value farming systems make to nationally scarce species such as the Corncrake and Great Yellow Bumblebee, whilst perhaps more importantly, retaining economically viable farming units.
Balnakeil Farm owned by Andrew Elliot, is one in an important network of farms and crofts following the High Nature Value principle in Durness. They are so successful that it is the last place on the UK mainland to which Corncrakes have returned consistently to breed every year – at the same time Balnakeil has maintained its excellent reputation for producing quality North Country Cheviots and pedigree Aberdeen Angus livestock.
However, despite this, it and many smaller crofts and farms are under threat from a lack of infrastructure and support packages. It would be a crying shame for communities, and for wildlife, if the vital work that HNV farmers and crofters do is under valued. When quizzed recently Andrew voiced his concerns on the matter -. “Investing in and supporting Less Favoured Areas would be the single most important thing the Scottish Government could do to support rural communities. At Balnakeil, there is a good balance between agricultural production and the environment. It’s a High Nature Value farm that definitely has a future, but it is essential to have that recognised in a more tangible form.”
The RSPB agrees that investing in and supporting less favoured areas – through the range of mechanisms now available to farmers and crofters in the reformed CAP package would help to make a difference, and acknowledge the importance of HNV systems. It has set out to make it easier for farmers and crofters to farm in a more conscientious manner. In Durness they have been able to help individual crofters prepare Rural Priorities applications – with a 100% success rate so far, and would like to see as many crofters and farmers take up similar options when the scheme re-opens. They have also invested in machinery to assist with habitat management – which includes a silage trailer, a muck spreader, and set of grass harrows – and they employ a highly skilled operator in James Mather, on a part time basis, to oversee the work there.
From what I have seen, it is evident that High Nature Value farming has a place in today’s world, and that of tomorrow. Farmers working with wildlife, as is being done at Balnakeil, is clearly a way forward for conservation, and it has been shown that it can work successfully without jeopardising a farms economic output. However, if this manner of farming is to continue and spread in active crofting communities across the Less Favoured Areas, then it is clear that better support must be available from the Scottish Government for farmers and crofters alike to use.
M Rowland, Aug 2013